The chequebook challenge of the BMW Hong Kong Derby begins in earnest tomorrow as four Derby-winning trainers unveil their primary classic hopefuls in the final race at Sha Tin, but expectations are mostly running low.
The path to the March 17 Derby has a long way to run and the trainers of Exquisite Champion, Ashkiyr and Best Show have warned there is much more to come, and only Chater Dream's trainer, David Ferraris, has much confidence going to the Class Two mile on New Year's Day.
"Chater Dream and Navel Orange are my Derby horses and I'm hoping to run both in the Classic Mile," he said. "People will have seen Navel Orange already - he has been drawing wide and racing well without any luck at all but he's a nice horse. Chater Dream has had a good prep and should run well. He caught the eye when he trialled well against Joy And Fun the first time then he trialled well again at Happy Valley over 1,700m. He had some solid form in France, and has a lovely, low action."
John Moore's Derby imports always excite plenty of attention and they have rarely failed to show something on debut, even if short of readiness as Ashkiyr has looked at the trials.
Ashkiyr had only five runs in France, won both his runs on firm going and was placed in very good company in the other three, and comes with a good reputation from his former handler.
"Alain de Royer-Dupre told me he was surprised the Aga Khan was selling Ashkiyr because there was quite a bit more to come from him after his three-year-old season," Moore said yesterday. "Still, it has been a learning curve here for Ashkiyr, who never ran at less than 2,000m in France. He was run off his legs his first trial and didn't pass, which is always awkward as owners get nervous, but we put the winkers on and he passed with a much better effort in the second trial. Still, this is the start of a programme to peak him in the Derby. I'd be thrilled if he runs home for fifth or sixth and we've mapped out a campaign of three races then into the Derby."
Moore's other major Derby horse hasn't been named yet, carries the brand of P182 and raced as Zumbi overseas under Sir Michael Stoute. "He's a little further behind than Ashkiyr at this stage," Moore added.
If Moore's expectations are modest, Tony Cruz's hopes for Exquisite Champion tomorrow can limbo under them, while Caspar Fownes is open minded about Best Show.
"Exquisite Champion is my main Derby horse this year but he had a setback in November and he's a heavily built colt - he probably should have been gelded a long time ago - and he's going to need a few races to get fit," Cruz said. "I like him as a horse but he's not ready so if he did run well I'd be very happy."
Best Show raced as Malandrino in New Zealand, where successful trainer Murray Baker called him the best he had ever put a saddle on, but Fownes admits the gelding's trials and work have been sluggish.
"He's had 3 trials and a good prep but he's been hard to gauge - he hasn't shown us a great deal and Zac Purton's got off him to ride Chater Dream," Fownes said. "I'm hoping he's just one of those horses that switches on raceday, not in training, but he'll probably need 2000m before we really see what he can do."